What it Means to Mentor

Standard

I talk a lot about the food industry–what chefs are doing, culinary events, trends, brands. But the topic I find myself most interested in talking about these days is “mentorship”.

Spell check doesn’t like that word, which is an interesting indicator of how far the concept has to go to become a legitimate part of US professional and educational ethos. We’re a bootstrapping, go-your-own-way culture that prides itself on instant, self-made successes; not the plodding, committed, life long trajectories our grandfathers and great-grandfathers would have called successes. We, as a country and as a culture, are so used to going it alone, that we’ve forgotten there is a whole constellation of people out there who are ready, willing and excited to teach us and help us on our way.

Australia and the UK have been rocking mentorship for decades through its young apprentice and trainee trade programs run mostly by state and national organizations as a way of creating skill sets and job opportunities among youth who might typically have gone straight from high school to unemployment. Back in the day before cooking was high profile, cooking was a trade. If you were a line cook, you were just as sexy as the plumber or electrician. Since its meteoric rise in popularity, these countries have capitalized on the chef phenomenon and put their culinary apprentice programs front-and-center for the world to see. And people want in.

The US, perhaps because of its tendency to eschew anything that smacks of old world thinking, has yet to emulate these successful programs, opting instead to have aspiring cooks choose between a long, grossly underpaid climb up the ladder and an exorbitantly priced culinary school education.

Until recently.

Over the past year or so there has been a quiet groundswell of interest in the concept of culinary apprenticeships here. “Why isn’t anyone doing this?” kind of conversations began. Even LA Weekly wrote an op-ed piece discussing the merits of staging versus formal culinary education.

When I left dineLA in 2011, I was a year in on a fleshing out a business model that formalized the chef stage experience. Business plan…check. Investors…check. Committed, noteworthy chefs willing to stand behind it…check. California Labor Laws were the hurdle we just couldn’t squeak our way around without playing fast and loose with state regulations on unpaid labor and what it means to apprentice.

I haven’t given up, and there are others who are creating their own interesting ways of supporting this necessary area of opportunity for the industry. Culintro has its Stage Program, which is essentially a pass-through, vetting applicants for chefs and large groups who host paid apprenticeships. Culinary Agents has created a series of “Get Inspired” mentoring events in partnership with some of New York’s biggest restaurant guns. And ment’or BKB, a non-profit created to foster culinary excellence in the US and, ultimately, developing the culinary prowess necessary to represent this country in the Bocuse d’Or.

Leave it to Daniel Boulud to finally walk the walk for us. If it works, his intensive high school apprenticeship program being created in partnership with the New York Department of Education would prove to be the first of its kind on our shores. Created out of necessity as a way of sourcing the skilled labor necessary to feed his restaurant empire, at its core is a solution to a much larger and more expansive need in the US.

I frequently receive emails from young people (ouch) wanting to get into culinary marketing who see me as an example of one way to do it–successfully I hope. I always take the time to respond to their emails, take their calls, offer guidance, suggestions and even introductions. This is how I mentor. Some day I may be able to hire one of these bright young things to help me run my stage program. For now I’ll keep taking their calls.


Photos are from the October 30th ment’or BKB Los Angeles Culinary Competition hosted by Bouchon Beverly Hills. Winner: Lyn Wells from Canyon Park Cafe, Orem, Utah.

mentorBKB.jpg

Good People Doing Good Things

Standard

Image

When I come across something interesting in the culinary world that also happens to be innovative, beautiful and altruistic I immediately want to be involved.

I’ve known Bob Hodson for several years now — our relationship snaking back through my work in the restaurant industry and his day job as a commercial food photographer.

Bob is incurably curious, gregarious, and in love with the world of delicious food and passionate, inspired chefs. So much so that he began to carve out time from his work schedule to cultivate a passion project called Chef’s Insight. The site is essentially a photographic journey into the process and inspiration of a chef. He’ll go as deep as the chef will allow, capturing raw, fly-on-the-wall images that help to tell the story of the personality and the food born from it. For Bob I believe the work fills a need to connect with that beauty and craftsmanship he so admires. For others (like me), it is a sumptuous, voyeuristic culinary experience.

How could I not want to be involved?

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at last week’s shoot with Chef Jimmy Shaw of Loteria Grill. Stay tuned for Jimmy’s feature and, in the meantime, devour what’s already there.

Chef's Insight / Jimmy Shaw

Chef’s Insight / Jimmy Shaw

Leveraging Chef Talent

Standard

tacobell

This article covering an article about Taco Bell’s recent rebound demonstrates the power of the culinary world and why more and more people are positioning themselves as brokers within it.

Doritos promotion aside–align yourself with a credible, recognizable chef personality and watch a vast, new audience flood through your door.

The model doesn’t always work (Aaron Sanchez / House of Blues), but if constructed correctly, a partnership with the right culinary talent could help revitalize and reposition your brand.

Burn the Boats

Standard

There are a handful of marketing gurus I stay connected to–for inspiration, for ideas, to help me get off my butt and do what I know I should be doing.

Never Stop Marketing” is one newsletter I actually manage to read on a daily basis. Today’s post is about managing the things we tell ourselves and taking control of the messaging and turning it into something that drives and motivates, rather than slows us down or defeats.

He had a list:

Go big or go home.

Leave it all on the field.

Embrace the suck. (A particularly appealing phrase courtesy of the Navy Seals.)

But the one that did it for me was: “Burn the boats.” And he linked out to a Wikipedia post to help explain.

The Wikipedia entry was for “Point of no return.”  It read: “[Burning one's boats] is a variation of “burning one’s bridges”, and alludes to certain famous incidents where a commander, having landed in a hostile country, ordered his men to destroy their ships, so that they would have to conquer the country or be killed.”

Wow.

I think Seth Godin would like this.

Talk about commitment.

Now imagine being this committed to your ideas. And go burn your boat.

C-CAP, The Future of Food

Standard

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about restaurants, food, where our food comes from, chefs, the people on the line doing the chopping, searing and serving.  It’s interesting when you can trace something back to its source.  These days people are into going back to the growers and the land.  But I’m interested in going back in a different direction–back to the people who may someday be cooking your food. 

Young people these days have not even a dim memory of the Home Ec classes of yesteryear.  They probably know what they know of food from television or a parent if they’re lucky.  Or maybe they have a friend or family member that works in the industry.  They know its tough work, long hours, not so great pay, but there’s something that calls them to it. 

I serve on the LA Board for C-CAP–Careers Through the Culinary Arts Profession–an organization that works with public schools to prepare high school students for college and career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry.  Each year we hold a series of cooking competitions where students use the skills they’ve learned from C-CAP instructors and industry mentors to compete for scholarships to culinary programs and community colleges across the country. 

As a past culinary graduate and culinarian I am often asked to judge these competitions.  Now…I judge at culinary events pretty regularly–Pellegrino’s Almost Famous Chef Competition, The Chocolate Salon, this weekend’s Cochon 555, but this experience is different. 

The competitors are all under 18, but they’re the most regal looking chefs you’ve ever seen, each trying to display a bit of their own style through their uniforms and cooking paraphanalia.  And, while they’re all executing the exact same dishes as their fellow students, you can see the yearning to be different and the little pops of style here and there.  They’re intense. They’re nervous.  And they’re…they’d hate me for saying this…so sweet. 

It seems amazing that kids with the entire world at their feet would choose this profession.  Whether they think it’s a safe toss, or something to really strive for, they’re coming.  Coming in droves. 

I wish them the best of luck. 

Shawna Dawson–Curator, Marketer, Homesteader?

Standard

Carrie Kommers:  How would you describe your role in the LA food world?

Shawna Dawson:  Accidental.  People think I’m a PR person, but I’m not.  I want to spread the word about and support the things that I feel are important and close to my heart.  And a lot of that has to do with the local food movement and the people behind it. 

The way my personal life has evolved—being a native and having grown up around these businesses, being with Yelp and then doing marketing and consulting and starting my own events—I think there’s an assumption that I’m a publicist, but I really enjoy supporting things that I feel passionate about.  I was born and raise here, I love LA, so one of them is my city. It’s the same thing with my own projects—people assume I’m an event producer.  It’s not really what I do.  I do Artisanal LA and LA Street Food Fest for myself because I enjoy them. 

I enjoy helping and supporting some of these local projects that I feel passionate about—and one of those is the local movement, on all fronts.  I say that as I’m stuffing my face with this amazing roast beef that I got from Lindy and Grundy. I’m convinced that happy cows really do taste better. 

Continue reading